“I’ll call you back in a few minutes, Laura,” Fenton told his wife after they’d had a very serious private conversation. Then, walking closer toward the people passing by, Fenton’s eyes scanned the area with trained nonchalance. Despite the other person’s ability to blend into a crowd, Fenton, with his detective’s sense of observation, recognized the Network agent.
Arthur Gray didn’t show his surprise when he saw Fenton, who stepped forward.
“Now here’s someone I haven’t seen for a while,” Fenton said with a smile for the benefit of anyone listening. “How’s the import/export business these days?”
Shaking Fenton’s hand and going along with the reference to the Network cover, Arthur decided he could shrewdly use what he assumed was an accidental meeting to determine how much the private investigator knew about the current situation. And maybe learn something that could help the Network. As a member of those dedicated to protecting freedom, Fenton’s expertise had helped the Network out on more than one occasion as they battled the Assassins.
“How about a cup of coffee?” suggested Fenton with a sweep of his hand to indicate a cafe not far from them.
Arthur agreed and they were soon sitting and talking at an outdoor table. Not too many people were around so that enabled them to speak quietly and discuss the situation without anyone overhearing.
“Have you heard that Joe’s missing?” Fenton began, watching the other man’s reaction carefully.
“Yes,” Arthur Gray answered briefly.
“And you know that we’re supposed to believe he’s been killed?”
“You don’t believe that?”
Fenton smiled. “My wife and I have taught our sons not to believe just anything, but to find out facts, so, to just believe what we’ve been told would go against that, wouldn’t it?” He glanced down at his coffee for a moment before looking back up. “I have a feeling you might be able to shed some light on this.”
“You think my ‘company’ has something to do with it?” Arthur asked, referring to the Network.
“I think you and your company have a lot of resources that might have heard something.” Fenton’s eyes were serious and the good-natured expression was gone. “My youngest son is missing, Arthur. I’m asking if you know anything that could help.”
Arthur sighed. He hadn’t always agreed with the Hardys on how to handle things, but he did respect them as crime-fighters. “There’s been Assassin activity in the area recently. Joe came across one of them.”
“Where’s Joe now?” asked Fenton, his voice low and determined.
“We don’t have him in our protection,” Arthur admitted. “We should move ahead and try to find the Assassins, Fenton, and assume what you’ve been told about Joe is true.”
“I already told you – assuming isn’t my way,” stated Fenton. He stood up and began to leave. But then he stopped. “Oh, Arthur?”
Arthur looked over. Fenton reached out his hand to shake it again before they parted ways.
“I know your company doesn’t really have endless resources, so I’m returning this.” Fenton smiled then went his way, almost chuckling at the hint of a surprised look on the Network agent’s face.
Arthur didn’t even need to look at what Fenton had slipped to him with that handshake. The miniature tracking device he’d slid into Fenton’s pocket – he thought without the other noticing. Arthur shook his head a little as he left the table to continue on to where he was going before Fenton had spotted him. The Network agent had the distinct feeling that hadn’t been an accidental meeting as he’d first thought. Fenton and his sons were a lot alike. He was glad they were all fighting the Assassins.
Fenton hadn’t been able to learn much from the conversation with Arthur Gray, but he had gathered some things.
Frank wanted to go question the cab driver, but before he got a chance, he received a call from his dad. Callie watched Frank’s handsome face as he talked on the phone. She could tell that Fenton obviously had some promising info, because Frank’s eyes lit up with hope instead of the confusion and frustration that had been there moments ago. Father and son had a brief conversation on their secure phones. Even with the security, they knew to be extra-cautious and used code for details and locations, just in case.
“Okay, we’ll head that direction and cover the area there while you continue where you are,” Frank agreed. He looked over at his girlfriend and gave her a wink. “He’s got some explaining to do, that’s for sure. Oh? Uh huh.” As Callie watched, Frank’s face didn’t give anything away of what his dad was telling him. “That’s it? She just said they made a cute couple?” Frank sighed. “Okay, got it. Thanks, Dad. And don’t worry. We’ll find him. And I’ll kick his butt for him, too.”
Then Fenton said something that made a look of wonder go across Frank’s face, so quickly, that Callie almost missed it before he regained control. She also noticed he wouldn’t look at her. What in the world had Fenton said? Callie waited anxiously for Frank to finish the conversation so she could find out.
“We’ll be careful. You, too.” Frank ended the call, but still didn’t look at Callie. She could tell he was deep in thought, but she was really tempted to interrupt, barely containing her curiosity.
Finally he spoke. His voice was quiet and she had to strain to hear him. And what she heard made her gasp and tears spring to her eyes.
When Joe and Iola got to the bus station, the bus had just left. The wait for the next one scheduled for that same route was going to seem like forever. Joe scowled in frustration as his blue eyes took in the schedule. He ran his right hand through his curly hair as his mind started going over their possible options. Immediately, he felt a soft hand on his left arm and he looked down into Iola’s pretty face.
“It’ll be okay,” she assured him. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but her faith and her hope, which had stayed with her ever since that day she’d disappeared, had only gotten stronger.
Seeing Iola’s confidence, Joe felt better, but he was also really scared at the thought of not living up to it.
“We need to stay out of sight until the next bus leaves,” Joe stated as Iola nodded. “And we really need some more money.”
“We can do this, Joe, if you’re sure we shouldn’t go find Frank and let him know what’s going on,” she told him quietly. She watched the emotions play across his face, his expression conflicted.
“I want to tell him, but the more distance we put between him and us, the safer he is.” Joe’s blue eyes were filled with determination.
“Do you think he’s going to stop looking?” Iola asked, raising an eyebrow, clearly knowing the answer to that one.
Joe sighed. “No. But, if the Assassins see that he also doesn’t know where we are, then hopefully they won’t bother him.”
“What if they try to grab him while he’s distracted looking for you, and they try to draw you out by threatening Frank’s life?”
Joe looked at Iola in exasperation. “That’s not making me feel better!”
“I’m just trying to examine every angle,” Iola reminded him, not backing down.
Joe’s expression softened as he looked at her. “I know. I thought of that, too. But he’ll be on high alert, while searching for me, making sure that he doesn’t inadvertently lead the Assassins to where we are. So this keeps him hidden and safe, too, because he will be hiding his tracks as well.”
Iola bit her lip and finally nodded. “That makes sense.”
“Okay, let’s get a snack while we wait for the bus – I haven’t eaten and I’m starved,” Joe suggested, reaching down and putting his hand over Iola’s that still rested on his arm. He looked at their two hands and then back into Iola’s deep eyes. “I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe, Iola. I promise.”
Her lips curved into a loving smile. “I know.”
They bought some inexpensive-but-filling snacks along with two fruit drinks and had just finished them when they heard a commotion a short distance away.
A man had pulled his refrigerated truck up near a small warehouse and was agitated about something he was telling to another guy. As Joe and Iola listened, they found out that the refrigeration was suddenly kaput after a glitch. So the entire truckload of perishable food would go bad if they didn’t get it all into a cooler temperature ASAP. But apparently the other guy was the owner of the warehouse and not only were none of his workers there, he had a bad back. Plus, thanks to mechanical failure of other equipment, all that they could use were dollies. It all had to be done by hand.
“Let’s go help,” Iola whispered to Joe. Joe looked over at her and shook his head.
“I’ll go help. I want you to stay hidden here.” He could tell she didn’t like that, but he had to keep her safe! He pulled his baseball cap down a little and stepped over to help. The owner of the truck was surprised at Joe’s offer of assisting in moving the boxes of food into the warehouse, but quickly accepted. The back of the truck was opened, revealing a large number of medium size boxes. Although keeping the truck closed up would keep it cold longer, there was too much time before the warehouse workers would get back.
Joe immediately went to work, grabbing a box and placing it on the dolly. As he turned to get another one, there was Iola, her baseball cap shading her features. She picked up a box, too, and added it to the stack. He gave her a look and she blinked her eyes at him. Despite his exasperation, the two fell into a perfect unison of unloading the not-particularly-heavy boxes together. Once they had a full stack, Joe pushed the dolly into the warehouse to where the food was to be stored. The owner of the truck did the same, following behind Joe and Iola.
“You can stack them right in here,” the owner said, pointing into a huge walk-in refrigerator.
After passing by a large number of dollies, Joe and Iola had the same idea. Joe left the loaded handcart in the refrigeration unit and turned to go back for more with Iola. Joe spoke over his shoulder as they walked back toward the truck outside.
“You’ve got enough dollies to load them up and get them into the cold faster, without unloading them.” Joe grabbed hold of a dolly they passed by. The warehouse owner couldn’t argue with that.
Just as they were finishing unloading the boxes, a woman’s shout was heard from nearby.
Joe and Iola turned to see a little toy poodle running toward the street. Apparently the dog had jumped from the arms of the expensive looking woman who was running and shouting frantically. She wasn’t going to get there in time. The dog was just about to the street and a small car had just turned the corner. They wouldn’t see the little poodle in time to stop.
“TOOTSIE! STOP!” the woman yelled in vain. Tootsie wasn’t stopping.
Iola was the closest and she didn’t hesitate. As soon as she saw the poodle, she ran to intercept the dog before it was too late.
She succeeded. Clutching the poodle in her arms, Iola hurried back over to where the anxious woman stood waiting. As soon as Iola neared, the woman snatched the dog out of Iola’s arms.
“Oh, my poor Tootsie!” She then began to babble away to the poor poodle, who looked over at Iola as if to say, wow, this woman gives me a headache!
Iola patted Tootsie’s head. A strong tan hand reached over Iola’s shoulder and patted the poodle’s head as well. Iola leaned back against Joe.
When the woman started to turn away, to go wherever she had been heading, Joe couldn’t believe it. He cleared his throat loudly. “Um, didn’t you forget something?”
The woman looked over. “Are you speaking to me?”
“Since you’re the one who forgot something – yeah.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “You could say ‘thank you’ for saving your dog.” He raised his eyebrows.
“Oh,” she said, distractedly. “Thank you for saving my Tootsie.” She looked over at Iola for a moment and then again started to turn away.
The truck owner had jogged over and had been listening, then the warehouse owner walked up as well. Eddie, the truck owner, looked pointedly at the woman with the dog. “If someone saved my dog like that, I’d want to reward the person. With money.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Iola started to say, since that wasn’t why she’d done it. She’d just wanted to save the little dog. She felt Joe’s hand on her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. They could use the money.
“Well,” the woman said hesitantly.
The warehouse owner spoke up. “I believe I recognize you. Aren’t you campaigning for a city position?” And he went on to say that his cousin at the newspaper would love this story.
Looking chagrined that she was going to have to part with some precious money, she shifted Tootsie to one arm, and opened her purse. “It’ll have to be a check.”
The truck owner noticed the uncomfortable looks on Joe and Iola’s faces. “There’s an ATM right over there. No offense, but I think they’d rather have the cash.”
Annoyed at having to put any effort into showing her gratitude, not once thinking about how she’d be feeling right then if Iola hadn’t rescued the poodle, the woman stomped over to the ATM, grabbing out one of her credit cards from her purse.
“Hope she’s not too angry,” Iola whispered to Joe, who leaned his head down to whisper back.
“She can just get over it.”
Iola giggled, but tried to stop as the woman came stalking back over. She handed Iola a stack of cash and left.
“And let me add some to that for helping with my truck. I would have had a real problem on my hands – and a real mess in my truck – if you hadn’t helped,” Eddie said to Joe and Iola.
When Joe and Iola walked back to the bus station, they had a lot more cash in their pockets. They were feeling pretty good, although when they found out that the bus would be another hour having required a repair, they knew they had a problem.
“Maybe a pit stop would be nice?” Iola suggested.
“Yeah, and those snacks are really wearing off,” Joe stated, glancing around, trying to decide where to go while they waited. “The longer we stay in the city, the more likely it is that Frank will catch up with us.”
“Well, this bus heads up into the countryside, so waiting for it is probably best. Unless you want to just start walking,” she suggested jokingly with a grin.
“Ha ha.” But then it turned into a real chuckle when he tugged the bill of her cap down, causing her to squeal in mock protest. “I love you.”
“Even though I’m tired, dusty, hungry, messy, hair falling down out of my ponytail, probably dirt smudges on my face, and yet I can tell you mean those words.“ Then her eyes twinkled merrily. “Oh. It’s all that cash, right?”
His chuckle turned into a flat-out laugh at her silliness. He pulled her into his arms. “Nope. It’s you.”
She relished his protective arms holding her safe and his loving words. “I love you, too.” A tear trickled out of the corner of her eye despite her best efforts.
“Don’t have time for tears,” Joe whispered huskily, his own voice sounding a little choked up. “Let’s go eat. I think I know just the place.”
Iola nodded and they headed out of the bus station. It wasn’t long before they reached a restaurant they’d both been to just a couple times before. The food would be delicious and it was a little out of the way, but popular. So it would have enough patrons to not be empty, but also not too many.
Joe had opened the door in honor of his lady, checked out the huge open dining area beyond the entryway, and was about to step inside the cool interior himself. Then he suddenly spotted two figures walking down the sidewalk a distance away. And recognized them. He turned his head quickly, knowing it was too late to step out of sight.
They had seen him. He was pretty sure that they didn’t know he’d seen them, since it had been in his peripheral.
He moved his body slightly to make it look like he was leaving the restaurant, not entering. Then he whispered urgently to Iola while taking his baseball cap off and handing it to her. “Go inside and stay there. Please. I need to lead some people away from here.” Joe paused to look directly at his girlfriend. “And I really, really mean it this time, Iola – stay here.”